Sketch: A Day with Animals
Yesterday, I watched my first live horse race and placed my first bets.
A friend and I, living out a long-held dream, traveled to Belmont Park in Elmont, NY, outside of the outside of NYC where there stand houses and stripmalls and where cars have space to breathe on the boulevards. That day was the Kentucky Derby, some of whose races we watched on the big jumbotrons in the building, alongside bomber-jacketed Indians and college kids dressed in New England prep. But most of our time was spent outside by the railing.
Before the first race we watched and bet on, we wandered the clubhouse. The tents and the front terrace spotted with families and bearded, pot-bellied middle-aged white men tipping back cans of Bud Light. As it was some sort of Racetrack College Weekend, baby-faced kids from St. John’s and nearby universities pranced like the horses about to race while the girls, in their gowns and gaudy, wide-brimmed hats, pulled beer coolers behind them. Bowties clinched necks and sleeves were rolled up and sunglasses were worn indoors. But in clusters at various points in the clubhouse, close to the exit onto the track and below the grandstand were people who looked like they were from around here. The thick 200-paged paper programs of the day’s races rolled up in their nicotine-stained fingers. Weather jackets and sweats and jeans loose on them, some shirts tucked into some pants, they all craned their necks in anxious penitence, some of them marking their programs absently, others clutching their bets.
Everywhere felt kind of dirty and dark, even though the sun beat back the cloud-cover outside. A few patrons lit up cigarettes as they brushed past my buddy and I in our suits. On our way to get my buddy a beer, a heavy-set man in glasses and a goatee spoke urgently into a flip phone: “I’m tellin’ you; she can’t keep doing this. Every month she’s in jail. Every two weeks.” He drifted out of earshot.
Someone behind us shouted an epithet.
“Ah, what I love about gambling,” my buddy crooned. “The inevitable violence.”
We got my buddy a beer and later returned for a Bloody Mary, which seemed more to his taste. A brief promenade out to the track and we saw more of the track-dwellers. A few of them would congregate around a bench and shoot the shit, many of them not even paying attention to the races, the track often unoccupied for long stretches of time. Black kids in leather jackets and fitted caps played reckless games of tag. White kids either picked at their fathers’ collars when they were carried or crushed empty beer cans beneath their feet. If you had an addiction, my buddy told me when I expressed my surprise, would you let your kids get in the way? It sounds crueler writing it out than it did hearing him say it at the time.
Back outside on the terrace, I bought us a program and we scanned it for the next race. He bet on what we presumed was an Irish horse, and I bet on what we presumed was a French horse, because, well… The French horse had the longest odds, but I’d counted on losing money today. My gray horse (already ‘my’) put in a stronger-than-expected showing, but finished middle of the pack, not enough even to show though I’d bet on it to win. The philosophy had been, and remained for the rest of the day, that if you bet long you could only lose what you put in, and if you bet long you could win so much more than that.
More amusing than thrilling, that first race had gotten me going, and we saw that the next Derby race and the next Belmont race were pretty close. We chose our Derby horses pretty quickly. In a race with 17 horses, we had no hope. The next Belmont race held some promise. My buddy had chosen Number 4, and I vacillated between Number 1 and Number 3; Number 1 was 10-1, and Number 3 started out 6-1. Flipped a coin, which seemed to be in keeping with the day’s tenor, and it landed on 1. Flipped again, and it landed once more on 1. I bet on 3 anyway.
The Derby race was fun to watch if only because of everyone else’s ecstasy/panic. But the obnoxious bow-tie’d frat boy who ran to a girl in a hoodie and shouted ‘we just won 1 million dollars’ on a 5-2 horse punctured our bubble. Fuck that guy.
We bet what felt, that day, pretty big, but could’ve been normal for a once-in-a-while trip to the tracks. Around us, folks would split $10, $5 bets on a few horses, one to win maybe a few others to show or place. The seasoned who marked up their programs and whose pockets were stuffed with tickets that would later litter the floor in pieces. I felt like an interloper.
Outside, we took to Facebook to tell everyone where we were spending Finals period.
The next Belmont race, what ended up being our last for the day, started off and Number 3, around the halfway mark, slipped back. Number 1 broke ahead, broke the tape by a sizable length, and I watched it gallop away with the $260 I would’ve won if I’d listened to that damn coin.
I stood on the verge of a corner, but we left before it could take, and I consoled myself that winning would’ve been worse for me than losing. Losing could only become part of the dangerous routine if winning had sprinkled itself in so as to dot the ritual with occasional reward. The reason a promise is meaningful.
The sky started to darken by the time we hopped the Q2 on the way back into over-civilization. I kept our program as a souvenir. Two-hundred pages all for a single day’s races. On the way, we stopped at a Kennedy’s Fried Chicken and ate the most affordable meal either of us had had in too long. We found shelter by the gas pumps of a Hess gas station as the rain began to pour. On and off, like a sputtering faucet, until another bus came and spirited us to the Jamaica-179th St stop, the last one on the F coming out this way.
The train ran local and we fought sleep as the day’s adrenaline washed out of us.
We parted ways at the Rockefeller Center stop and I continued on to Brooklyn to watch the Mayweather-Maidana fight with another good buddy of mine. Caught the two important undercards before the main event and held my buddy’s tiny dog and petted it lovingly as it licked my fingers while I watched two men beat each other in the most thrilling Mayweather fight I think I’d ever seen.
Even today, a day and a good night’s sleep later, I find myself thinking more about the horse that won than the horse that lost. Wondering if anyone who left Belmont Park after the last race was doing the same.
Originally written May 4, 2014